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Seeing is Believing: Debunking the Myths of 3D Printing at Materialise

I spent a fascinating day visiting the Materialise 3D Printing headquarters in Leuven, Belgium yesterday. In the process, I and the team learned a great deal about the realities of 3D printing, as well as the myths, many of which the team at Materialise helped to debunk.  Materialise is one of the world leaders in 3D printing technology, and we learned a great deal in spending our time with the Belgian team on this visit.


First of all, 3D printing is not new; it has been around for more then 25 years, and is a fairly robust technology. The terms rapid prototyping, 3D printing, and and additive manufacturing are all terms for the same process. Second, 3D printing is not as simple as the hype would have you believe. In fact, there are three stages of 3D Printing.   First, design engineers need to design the parts for 3D printing. This is an important first step, as we learned that there are particular issues to consider when designing parts for 3D printing. First of all, 3D printing is NOT good for high volume, very large parts. The sweet spot are parts that are too complex for injection molding, as well as complex steel and aluminum parts that require a very smooth surface that won’t work well for casting. 3D printing is also used to create parts that are then developed for casting production, especially for prototype development (such as aerospace components).

Soup Art
Soup Art

The second part is the software. Materialise designs software that will work on any type of machine, and in fact, sells their software to competitors and large companies. They sell to 3D printing parters that manufacture components and engineering. Materialize has been in business for over 25 years, and is continuously improving their software capabilities.

Third is the actual 3D printing production. There are several technologies here, and the most common of these is sintering. In sintering, layers of plastic, aluminum, or other materials are spread onto a plate, and are about 0.1mm thick. Next, ultrasound lasers sinter or “melt” the layer of plastic or steel.   The entire plate then moves down into a box, and the next layer is added. At the conclusion of the process, the entire box is full of plastic powder, with the components in them. Each box may have many parts that are layered geometrically into it like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, and this is done to maximize the productivity of the process.

magics_nester2We had a great tour of the facility, and got to observe the laser sintering processes, as well as the steel production areas. The machines may take 1-3 days to produce a single box of parts, which means the operation runs 24-7.   The company has grown to have design and engineering offices all over the world, and is expanding in a number of areas. For example, it has a whole set of designer furniture and lighting products, produces customized insoles for Adidas, aerospace prototypes, and even takes orders from consumers who can submit their own design for 3D printing. As we looked at the different types of parts and components produced (shown in the figues below), I was truly amazed by the number and variety of parts produced. I was especially impressed by the medical healthcare components. We saw how a customized hip implant component was being produced and custom fit for a patient, and then surgically implanted in the patient. The hospital would take an MRI to get the dimensions and detailed scans are used to then custom fit the hip implant. The bone will then grow into the implant and integrated into the bone structure. They also can create models of hearts based on CT scans, so that surgeons can “simulate” a difficult operation prior to the occurrence using the model of the heart sintered into plastic. The risk is much lower as the physician has practiced on a model of the heart in a black box.


The primary benefits of 3D printing are to shorten product development time to market. The ability to rapidly and cheaply produce prototypes based on a design is instrumental and less cost then injection molding, and works best for low volume ( products that are complex to produce. The technology is also ideal for mass customized, one-off products, where there is a custom design with variability, such as customized medical devices. For example, when a manufacturer of hearing aids began to use 3D printing to produce devices that were customized for people’s different ear tube shapes, he set the standard for the industry. Today 99% of hearing aids are produced using 3D printing. Software scans the shape of the ear, and you can receive them in a very short time.

The team at Materialise emphasized that there is indeed a sweet spot for 3D printing that is growing. Injection molding is better for high volume products that are not complex, but the real benefit of 3D is that there is no additional incremental cost as complexity is increased in the design of the part. It makes no difference to the machine time. The only limits are material and technology and time. If you need the part in a day, it is not suitable, as it is a slow manufacturing technique.

Spare parts for machines are a potential growth area. The technology is attractive to oil and gas where down time costs millions of dollars. However, the technology is not yet able to produce titanium parts next to the equipment in minutes that would be able to be used. This is projected to be possible perhaps in a 5 to 10 year window. Materialize does keep dedicated machines for dedicated materials to avoid contamination, ensuring there is one machine for each material. Workers are also assigned by machine, so they can better understand how to manage that machine – and the management of machines and dedicated expertise is assigned to each machine so they understand the parameters and characteristics of each machine.

Other areas where Materialise is growing is in customized glasses for Hoet and Baweome, 3D printing software for a new line of HP printers, carseat prototypes for Toyota, miniature toys for Primo, and even customized 3D printed dresses for Lady Gaga and the New York Fashion Show!

The future of 3D printing in the world of supply chain management is growing. While the potential for MRO and spare parts production is possible, there may be other areas where emerging applications will begin to pop up in the years ahead. I may be working with the Materialise team on research in this area soon, so stay tuned…

Other Interesting Links:

Products and Services for Engineering professionals:

The Factory for 3D Printing – Certified Manufacturing:

Some interesting online video’s:

Visuals last World Conference in 2015:  and